Colleges Are Freezing Hiring for Tenure-Track Faculty. Adjuncts Can’t Let This Crisis Go to Waste.

by P.D. Lesko

College administrators are re-calculating their six-, seven-, eight-, nine- and ten-figure budgets, and battening down the golden hatches on their mega-yachts. There are rumblings and evidence of a system-wide hiring freeze for tenure-line faculty, the most expensive instructional items on any college’s faculty menu. As I wrote in an essay published in October 2019, “Colleges are already spending $165 billion on faculty salaries and benefits. That pot of money, on average, is divvied up 98-2, with the lion’s share going to full-time faculty and the short end of the stick going to adjunct faculty….This means that right now, colleges spend $4.3 billion annually on compensating 752,669 part-time faculty and $160.7 billion compensating 488,000 tenured and tenured-line faculty.” Each tenured and tenure-line faculty member costs her/his college employer around $389,000 per year on average.

InsideHigherEd.com is reporting that scores of colleges and universities are freezing new, tenure-line faculty hiring. Author Colleen Flaherty writes, “At many institutions, that means getting just enough instruction and support online to be able to operate tomorrow, and having enough money to do so. Everything else can wait, including faculty hiring. Already, scores of colleges and universities have announced hiring freezes for this fiscal year and the next one.”

This could lead to unprecedented opportunities for adjunct faculty who will be hired, we can be sure, to keep online classes staffed and the ever-bloated university administrations afloat.

To be sure, any tenure-line faculty hiring freeze is, indeed, bad news for non-tenured faculty on—and planning to go on—the higher ed job market in 2020-2021. However, a hiring freeze for full-time tenure-line faculty doesn’t mean there will be fewer students, fewer courses offered, or fewer non-tenured jobs (full-time/part-time) available.

During the 2020-2021 academic year, colleges could hire 300,000 more adjunct faculty for $2 billion annually. The additional $2 billion in faculty compensation for those 300,000 adjuncts could come from freezing the hiring of 5,000 full-time tenure-line faculty. Each of America’s 5,300 colleges and universities need freeze just one tenure-track hire in the 2020-2021 academic year. (Here’s an idea on how to fund quintupled adjunct pay without any additional money for higher education from states or the federal government.) Far-fetched? In 2016, according to the AAUP, postsecondary institutions hired 30,865 full-time, non-tenure-track instructional faculty members, compared to 21,511 full-time, tenure-track professors.

While the hiring freeze is bunching bloomers in certain circles, a hiring freeze for full-time tenure-line faculty is an unprecedented opportunity for adjunct faculty and the higher education unions who take their money in the form of union dues. It could provide very strong leverage for adjuncts and their unions to demand higher pay and fully-funded health care benefits. After all, by using adjunct faculty to fill the slots left open by not hiring tenure-line faculty, college administrators will save tens of billions of dollars. Adjunct union leaders should be pressing administrators to immediately double or triple pay for adjunct faculty. These union representatives must demand colleges provide adjunct faculty who need them with health care and other benefits.

Sadly, if the AFT, NEA and AAUP national leadership were to use this hiring freeze as a way to push unified and full-time faculty union local leadership to improve the pay and benefits of their collective tens of thousands dues-paying adjunct members, I’d be shocked. The majority of unified union locals are controlled by unscrupulous, self-serving full-time faculty who already negotiate grossly unfair and lop-sided contracts that favor themselves.

Union locals controlled by part-time faculty are another matter. These union leaders should not let this crisis go to waste. Will college administrators play ball? I think so. Here’s why.

There is no evidence or rumblings of a system-wide hiring freeze for administrators. On March 26, 2020, the University of Michigan hired Martino Harmon as the VP for student life. A press release about the hiring states, “His five-year appointment was approved March 26 by the Board of Regents, during a meeting that was conducted virtually due to the COVID-19 outbreak.” At the University of California, the Office of the President has 50 job searches currently posted on LinkedIn, the most recent job posted on March 26. On March 27, CUNY posted a job for an Assistant Director of HR for Hostos Community College, just one among 66 job searches for low-level and executive administrators.

There is no evidence or rumblings of a system-wide hiring freeze for adjunct faculty. Quite the contrary, adjunct faculty have moved from bit players to center stage. HigheredJobs.com, on April 1, 2020, had almost 14,000 job postings for adjunct faculty and 7,500 job postings for tenure-track faculty.

Karen Kelsky is a former tenured professor and founder of the academic career consultancy The Professor Is In. InsideHigherEd.com reported that she “started a crowdsourced list of institutions that are freezing hiring.” Kelsky also claims she has seen some “questionable behavior on the part of institutions concerning tenure-track jobs. Verbal offers that had progressed to negotiation have been revoked.”

Kelsky may be shocked and surprised, but I’m certainly not. I responded to a March 31, 2020 Tweet from an adjunct who had been “dropped” from a course.

Questionable behavior on the part of administrators who oversee faculty hiring may be a shock to Karen Kelsky, but there aren’t many adjunct faculty who would bat an eyelash at having promises of employment withdrawn at the last minute.

“This is systemic collapse,” Kelsky told InsideHigherEd.com.

No. The system is not in collapse. The “system” will screw its own Ph.D. graduates and failed tenure-track faculty who got the heave-ho. It will screw people who were planning to seek employment in an industry that has been built up by a decades-long over-reliance on exploited workers. Unless these Ph.D. candidates and faculty who failed to get tenure were educated and employed with blinders on, they spent years watching adjunct faculty thrown away over and over like used paper towels.

This full-time tenure-line faculty hiring freeze is business as usual: administrators will to save their institutions so they can save their own jobs. The shock felt by people like Karen Kelsky comes from the fact that the hiring of full-time tenure-line faculty has typically been conducted with a skim coat of decorum, pomp and circumstance. The jobseekers who normally get the red carpet treatment are getting the “adjunct” treatment.

Adjuncts, however, will never have a better chance to join the other temp and service workers in our country who are using their newly-found leverage and power to demand their employers pay them more and provide them benefits.

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